Shooting Down Iran Air Flight 655 [IR655]
By: Shapour Ghasemi, 2004
On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 (IR655) was shot down by USS Vincennes on the Bandar Abbas-Dubai rout, which resulted in the loss of life of 290 innocent civilians from six nations including 66 children. There were 38 non-Iranians aboard.
On the morning of that disastrous day, 3rd of July, the captain and crew of Flight 655 were at Bandar Abbas airfield in southern Iran, preparing for the second leg of their routine 150-mile flight over the Persian Gulf to Dubai. Flight 655 was a commercial flight operated by Iran Air that flew on a Tehran-Bandar Abbas-Dubai route.
Flight 655, an Iran Air passenger aircraft similar to this Iran Air Airbus A300B2 was shot down by USS Vincennes, a US Navy cruiser, in July 3, 1988, killing all 290 passengers and crew from six nations including 66 children.
The plane, an Airbus A300B2, registered EP-IBU, left Bandar Abbas at 10:17am that day, 27 minutes after its scheduled departure time of 09:50am. It would have been a 28-minute flight. At that same time, the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, USS Vincennes, fitted with the AEGIS combat system, was nearby in the Strait of Hormuz, which the commercial airliner, flown by Captain Mohsen Rezaian, would pass over. USS Vincennes was stationed in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, U.S. presence was intended to escort and defend Kuwaiti oil tankers registered under the U.S. flag; and limit Iranian marine activities as well as the tightening of US imposed embargo against Iran. In command of Vincennes was Commander William C. Rogers III. At the time of the incident, Vincennes, in support of Operation Earnest Will, was within Iranian territorial waters, following combat with and pursuit of Iranian gunboats. The USS Sides and the USS Elmer Montgomery were nearby.
Like most modern aircraft, the Iranian airliner was equipped with an aircraft identification transponder, a modern form of the old "identification, friend or foe" (IFF) system of World War II. When interrogated by a radar signal from a potential adversary, the transponder "squawks" (gives off a specific response signal) in a prespecified, fixed mode.
After taking off from runway 21, Flight 655 was directed by the Bandar Abbas tower to turn on its transponder and proceed over the Persian Gulf. The flight was assigned routinely to commercial air corridor Amber 59, a twenty-mile-wide lane on a direct line to Dubai airport. Owing to the short distance, the flight pattern would be a simple trajectory--climbing out to an altitude of 14,000 feet, cruising for a short time, and then descending gradually into Dubai.
USS Vincennes (CG-49) is a U.S. Navy Ticonderoga class AEGIS guided missile cruiser well known for shooting down Iran Air Flight 655 in July 3, 1988 killing 290 innocent civilians from six nations including 66 children.
Because of the delay in takeoff, it appeared on the Vincennes's radar at 10:17, and at 10:19, the Vincennes began to issue warnings on the Military Air Distress frequency. According to U.S. government accounts, Vincennes mistakenly identified the Iranian airplane as an attacking military fighter. The officers identified the flight profile being flown by the A300B2 as being similar to that of an Iranian Air Force F-14A Tomcat during an attack run. According to the same reports Vincennes tried more than once to contact Flight 655, but there was no acknowledgement. The official ICAO report stated that these attempts to contact Iran Air 655 were sent on the wrong frequency and addressed to a non-existent "Iranian F-14".
The Iranian F-14s at Bandar Abbas have been set to squawk in "Mode II," a mode that would identify to the U.S. ships that the aircraft in question were military, and Iranian. Being a commercial flight, Iran Air 655 was instructed to squawk in Mode III, a signal that identifies civilian traffic. A unique transmission code number, 6760 in this case, was assigned to distinguish this particular flight from others.
During the next three minutes, the Vincennes issued a number of warnings on both military and civil distress frequencies, it (mistakenly) identified the Airbus 320 as a possible Iranian F-14, it (mistakenly) reported hearing IFF squawks in Mode II, and it (mistakenly) reported the aircraft as descending toward the ship when it was in fact still climbing according to its usual flight plan.
At 10:24 am, Captain Rogers, the Commanding Officer of Vincennes ordered to fire two SM-2ER antiaircraft missiles at the assumed F-14 fighter jet. A few seconds later, with the Airbus still on its assigned climb out, and slightly to one side of, but well within air corridor Amber 59, it was intercepted by one or both of the missiles at a range of eight nautical miles and an altitude of 13,500 feet. Flight 655, with some 290 people, tumbled in flames into the Persian Gulf. The whole flight had taken less than seven minutes. There were no survivors. By noon that day, Iranian helicopters and boats began to search the area and recover the bodies. It was not until later in the day that the officers and men of the Vincennes would learn that what they had shot down was not an Iranian F-14, but a commercial, civil flight.
Since the "black box" flight recorder on board the Iranian Airbus has been irrecoverably lost in the waters of the Persian Gulf, we shall never know exactly what her flight profile was, whether the crew ignored the American challenges or simply did not hear them.
However, the Vincennes had a black box of its own. The SPY-1A, Command and Decision, and Weapons Control System computers were all equipped with magnetic tape equipment that tracked and recorded all of the signals received and processed by these key pieces of electronic equipment. Because of this, investigators have been able to verify the timing and nature of all actions.
The situation aboard the Vincennes that day was one of confusion and disorder. The story told by the data tapes is straightforward. Iran Air Flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas at 10:17 a.m. on the morning of July 3, on a heading of 210 (runway 21). Squawking Mode III, Code 6760 continuously, it kept on a more or less constant heading of 210, climbing steadily to its cruising altitude while gradually gaining speed. Data and testimony from the USS Sides corroborate the flight path and the Mode III IFF squawk. Indeed, the Sides was to identify the unknown aircraft as non-hostile and turn its attention elsewhere only seconds before the Vincennes launched its missiles.
The story told by those inside the CIC aboard the Vincennes is quite different. From the first alerted contact, various personnel began to report a "Mode II" squawk on a code associated with Iranian F-14s. Although none of the data recorders reported any IFF response other than Mode III, Code 6760, those aboard the Vincennes continued to consistently misreport the signal.
As the range closed, the Vincennes began to broadcast increasingly urgent warning messages to the unknown aircraft; at first, these were general challenges on both military and international civil distress nets. But as the notion that the aircraft was indeed an F-14 became fixed in the minds of the key operators, the challenges were made more specific and were addressed only to an unidentified "Iranian F-14." A quick thumb-through of a listing of commercial flights missed the clear listing for Flight 655, although it was on course and nearly on time.
A warning of possible "COMAIR" (commercial aircraft) issued a minute or two later was acknowledged by the CO, but essentially ignored. Commander Lustig, the Anti-Air Warfare Commander (AAWC) new to his post (and generally regarded as inexperienced and a weak leader), de facto leadership fell upon the more junior Tactical Information Coordinator (TIC), who by that time was almost literally shouting about the immediacy and seriousness of the threat.
Captain Rogers did allow the unknown aircraft to close to well within its possible missile firing range before asking for and receiving permission to intercept, and he did so only after repeating the challenge several more times. Only then, convinced that the threat to his ship was too serious to ignore, and under pressure to act quickly to avoid the earlier fate of the USS Stark, did he authorize the firing.
Was Captain Rogers justified in his perception of a real threat to his ship (which was the US Navy's claim)?
Was the whole incident a regrettable, but unavoidable, accident of war (which is precisely what the resulting U.S. attitude was, in the Pentagon, in Congress, and in the press)?
The question to be asked is: Was an error made on the U.S. side at all? The U.S. Navy finally claimed that Captain Rogers of the Vincennes acted correctly in appraising the threat. Others in the United States asserted that such blame as there was attached solely to Iran.
The large-scale technical military system operating in the Persian Gulf on that day, of which the Vincennes was the central feature, was not waging total war, but rather a highly selective engagement in an arena known to be filled with civil traffic on air and sea. This very sophisticated piece of equipment had been placed in a situation for which it had never been designed precisely because it was thought to be most capable of making the kinds of quick and accurate judgments that would be necessary. But it failed.
Throughout its final flight IR655 was in radio contact with various air traffic control services using standard civil aviation frequencies, and had spoken in English to Bandar Abbas Approach Control seconds before Vincennes launched its missiles. Vincennes at that time had no equipment suitable for monitoring civil aviation frequencies, other than the International Air Distress frequency, despite being a sophisticated anti-aircraft warship. Subsequently U.S. Navy warships in the area were equipped with dialable VHF radios, and access to flight plan information was sought, to better track commercial airliners.
The Navy investigation board was convened by Rear Admiral William M. Fogarty at Bahrain beginning on July 6, while the events were still fresh in the minds of the participants. Formal hearings began a week later, and the entire procedure was completed and the report delivered to the Navy on July 28. Even in the cleansed form provided to the public, the report is rich in personal and technical detail. Perhaps the most striking feature is the degree to which the recollections of the participants as to the nature and assessment of the presumptive threat differ, and the variance between what was reported by the SPY-1A computers and what its human interpreters were reporting.
The record shows that the decision to fire was taken more or less calmly and deliberately on the basis of personal advice passed from junior officers to the senior AAWC, and from the AAWC to the CO--in the face of a stream of contrary evidence from the electronics aboard.
While issuing notes of regret over the loss of human life, the U.S. government has, to date, neither admitted any wrongdoing or responsibility in this tragedy, nor apologized, but continues to blame Iranian hostile actions for the incident. The men of the Vincennes were all awarded combat-action ribbons. Commander Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, even won the navy's Commendation Medal for "heroic achievement", his "ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire" having enabled him to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure." According to a 23 April 1990 article printed in The Washington Post, the Legion of Merit was presented to Captain Rogers and Lieutenant Commander Lustig for their performance in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1988. The citations did not mention the downing of the Iran Air flight at all.
The incident continued to overshadow U.S.-Iran relations for many years. Following the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 six months later, the British and American governments initially blamed the PFLP-GC, a Palestinian militant group backed by Syria, with assumptions of assistance from Iran in retaliation for Iran Air Flight 655. The blame was later shifted to Libya.
Vice President George H. W. Bush (later President of United States of America) declared a month later, "I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are."
Newsweek, August 15, 1988
Public Statements on the Destruction of an Iranian Jetliner by the United States Navy Over the Persian Gulf July 3, 1988
US President, Ronald W. Reagan, Statement on the Destruction of an Iranian Jetliner by the United States Navy Over the Persian Gulf July 3, 1988
I am saddened to report that it appears that in a proper defensive action by the USS Vincennes this morning in the Persian Gulf an Iranian airliner was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz. This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew, and their families. The Defense Department will conduct a full investigation.
We deeply regret any loss of life. The course of the Iranian civilian airliner was such that it was headed directly for the USS Vincennes, which was at the time engaged with five Iranian Boghammar boats that had attacked our forces. When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack.
Letter US President, Ronald W. Reagan, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate on the Destruction of an Iranian Jetliner by the United States Navy Over the Persian Gulf July 4, 1988
Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. President:)
On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes and USS Elmer Montgomery were operating in international waters of the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz. (On July 2, the Montgomery had responded to a distress signal from a Danish tanker that was under attack by Iranian small boats and had fired a warning shot, which caused the breaking off of the attack.) Having indications that approximately a dozen Iranian small boats were congregating to attack merchant shipping, the Vincennes sent a Mark III LAMPS Helicopter on investigative patrol in international airspace to assess the situation. At about 1010 local Gulf time (2:10 a.m. EDT), when the helicopter had approached to within only four nautical miles, it was fired on by Iranian small boats (the Vincennes was ten nautical miles from the scene at this time). The LAMPS helicopter was not damaged and returned immediately to the Vincennes.
As the Vincennes and Montgomery were approaching the group of Iranian small boats at approximately 1042 local time, at least four of the small boats turned toward and began closing in on the American warships. At this time, both American ships opened fire on the small craft, sinking two and damaging a third. Regrettably, in the course of the U.S. response to the Iranian attack, an Iranian civilian airliner was shot down by the Vincennes, which was firing in self defense at what it believed to be a hostile Iranian military aircraft. We deeply regret the tragic loss of life that occurred. The Defense Department will conduct a full investigation.
The actions of U.S. forces in response to being attacked by Iranian small boats were taken in accordance with our inherent right of self-defense, as recognized in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, and pursuant to my constitutional authority with respect to the conduct of foreign relations and as Commander in Chief. There has been no further hostile action by Iranian forces, and, although U.S. forces will remain prepared to take additional defensive action to protect our units and military personnel, we regard this incident as closed. U.S. forces suffered no casualties or damage.
Since March 1987, I and members of my Administration have provided to Congress letters, reports, briefings, and testimony in connection with developments in the Persian Gulf and the activities of U.S. Armed Forces in the region. In accordance with my desire that Congress continue to be fully informed in this matter, I am providing this report consistent with the War Powers Resolution. I look forward to cooperating with Congress in pursuit of our mutual, overriding aim of peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region.
Note: Identical letters were sent to Jim Wright, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and John C. Stennis, President pro tempore of the Senate. The letter was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on July 5.
Source:1988-89 PPPUS 920-921 (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1988-89 (book 2), SuDoc: AE 2.114:988-89/BK.2, ISSN: 0079-7626, LCCN: 58061050, DL, WorldCat}.
Statement by Assistant to the President for Press Relations Marlin Fitzwater on United States Policy Regarding the Accidental Attack on an Iranian Jetliner Over the Persian Gulf July 11, 1988
The President has reviewed U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, where our military forces are protecting vital interests of the free world. He has expressed his complete satisfaction with the policy and reiterated his belief that the actions of the USS Vincennes on July 3 in the case of the Iranian airliner were justifiable defensive actions. At the same time, he remains personally saddened at the tragic death of the innocent victims of this accident and has already expressed his deep regret to their families.
Prompted by the humanitarian traditions of our nation, the President has decided that the United States will offer compensation on an ex gratia basis to the families of the victims who died in the Iranian airliner incident. Details concerning amounts, timing, and other matters remain to be worked out. It should be clearly understood that payment will go to the families, not governments, and will be subject to the normal U.S. legal requirements, including, if necessary, appropriate action by Congress. In the case of Iran, arrangements will be made through appropriate third parties. This offer of ex gratia compensation is consistent with international practice and is a humanitarian effort to ease the hardship of the families. It is offered on a voluntary basis, not on the basis of any legal liability or obligation.
The responsibility for this tragic incident, and for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, lies with those who refuse to end the conflict. A particularly heavy burden of responsibility rests with the Government of Iran, which has refused for almost a year to accept and implement Security Council Resolution 598 while it continues unprovoked attacks on innocent neutral shipping and crews in the international waters of the Gulf.
In fact, at the time of the Iran Air incident, U.S. forces were militarily engaged with Iranian forces as a result of the latter’s unprovoked attacks upon neutral ships and a U.S. Navy helicopter. The urgent necessity to end this conflict is reinforced by the dangers it poses to neighboring countries and the deplorable precedent of the increasingly frequent use of chemical weapons by both sides, causing still more casualties.
Only an end to the war, an objective we desire, can halt the immense suffering in the region and put an end to innocent loss of life. Our goal is peace in the Gulf and on land. We urge Iran and Iraq to work with the Security Council for an urgent comprehensive settlement of the war pursuant to Resolution 598. Meanwhile, United States forces will continue their mission in the area, keenly aware of the risks involved and ready to face them.
Source:1988-89 PPPUS 934-935 (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1988-89 (book 2), SuDoc: AE 2.114:988-89/BK.2, ISSN: 0079-7626, LCCN: 58061050, DL, WorldCat}.
Independent investigations into the events have presented a different picture. John Barry and Roger Charles, of Newsweek, wrote that Commander Rogers acted recklessly and without due care. Their report further accused the U.S. government of a cover-up. An analysis of the events by the International Strategic Studies Association described the deployment of an AEGIS cruiser in the zone as irresponsible and felt that the expense of the ship had played a major part in the setting of a low threshold for opening fire. On November 6, 2003 the International Court of Justice concluded that the U.S. Navy's actions in the Persian Gulf at the time had been unlawful.
It is worthy to mention that United Arab Emirates, records showed that the Vincennes was actually inside of Iran's territorial waters, not forty miles south (where the ship had been officially ordered by fleet headquarters to stay) as Captain Rogers and government reports had claimed. Furthermore, Flight 655 was directly inside of its commercial flight path, not four miles outside of it--as Rogers and the Vincennes crew also claimed.
Three years after the incident, Admiral William Crowe admitted on ABC Nightline that the Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters at the time of the shoot-down. This directly contradicted the official Navy claims of the previous years.
On February 22, 1996 the United States of America under presidency of Bill Clinton agreed to pay Iran and victims of Flight 655 US$61.8 million in compensation ($300,000 per wage-earning victim, $150,000 per non-wage-earner) for the 248 Iranians killed in the shoot-down. This was an agreed settlement to discontinue a case brought by Iran in 1989 against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice. The payment of compensation was explicitly characterized as being on an "ex gratia" basis, and the U.S. denied having any responsibility or liability for the incident.
Admiral William Fogarty; "Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988". This is an official Navy report on disaster of Flight 655 and so far only partially released (part I in 1988, part II in 1993), a fact criticized by many observers.
Gene I. Rochlin; "Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization". Chapter 9: Unfriendly Fire; Tragedy over the Persian Gulf; 1998.
Lieutenant Colonel David Evans, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired); "Navigation and Naval Operations II: Crisis Decision Making: USS Vincennes Case Study"; Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Unit, University of Pennsylvania.
The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Digital Library of University of Michigan
The Public Papers of the US Presidents on website of The American Presidency Project [ http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu ]